Brand Design – The Visual Language of Luxury

brand design studio Melbourne

Where’s the Brand Design?
As a creative brand agency working with clients throughout Australia and the Asia Pacific, we spend much of our lives diving deep into the craft of brand design. Whether it is publishing our comprehensive guide to trends in global brand design or translating the brilliant brand strategy and proposition definition work we do into brand identities and brand communications for our clients, brand design is a critical part of our game. We see brand design as a particularly specialized skill-set, where every nuance of a brands’ visual messaging is carefully crafted to present exactly the right combination of visual cues to the market. The difference between brand design and it’s flashy cousin advertising is is neither widely understood, nor widely leveraged by business, as the focus of today’s Post illustrates.

The Visual Language of Luxury
Recently on a flight to Sydney I cam across this advertisement for ‘Luxury Hotel Brand’ Sofitel. I was instantly struck by the beautiful image shot for the campaign by famed English photographer Tim Walker. The photograph (and the others shot for the campaign) beautifully sum-up the spirit that the brand is wishing to communicate. The global theme for the campaign is; ‘”Life is Magnifique” depicting the essence of French sophistication and luxury found at Sofitel’. Sofitel’s ambition is to become the premier French ambassador of international hospitality. As a brand, Sofitel has always struggled to position itself in the premium end of the market in our corner of the world, and in my view, the visual brand language of the brand here must take much of the responsibility.

At left is a copy of the add in question, which is part of a broader larger campaign. The visual language of the ad features the wonderful hero imagery, but from there nose-dives into a tangle of mixed-visual messages and inappropriate visual cues.
• The ad design features no less than five different type faces. A golden rule of luxury/premium visual brand language is ‘less is more’ – the axiom of simple elegance should be the guiding principal for any and all design for this brand.

• The ‘Life is Maginifique’ headline has been reduced to the role of a confusing, supporting design element, rather than play the leading communication role it was destined for. The poorly designed typography for this line appears to be inherited from the global campaign, but the challenge here must be to show it in the best possible light rather then hide it in the wings through embarrassment.

• The adoption of a new French Inspired’ headline does the brand communication no favors. Firstly it introduces a new typeface to the mix – in isolation there’s nothing wrong with the font choice, but an additional font in that colour, size and location fights against the very cues of sophisticated elegance it is trying to communicate. Secondly, we believe firmly that a brand demonstrates it’s proposition first and communicates it secondly. As a piece of communication ‘Magnifique French Inspired Hotels’ does nothing to convince me that what they say is what you get. A French Chef in the hotel restaurant, a French interior designer of note creating the guest rooms, French toiletries in the bathroom, an extensive French wine list, even a French accented concierge would all inspire me to believe the Sofitel brand experience would capture something of the French essence of ‘Life is Maginifique’.

• Whilst on the subject of Inspiration Francé, the visual language design has also missed-out on  the opportunity to incorporate some authentic French cues. A visual decode of luxury French hotel visual language provides a number of cues from layout to colour palette, from type style to simplicity that would provide the brand some much needed French spirit.

• Finally, the brand mark treatment. Launched in 2007, the Sofitel brand mark has undergone a transformation into 3D. As we covered at length in our 2010 published Trends in Global Brand Visual Language Report; three dimensionality has become the trend of last resort. As a trend it has been picked-up across every industry and used and abused by brands across the market. Although the use of three dimensional brand marks has rarely been seen in the luxury end of any market – that is for good reason. The visual cues communicated by this style of brand mark rendering are anything but luxury. This style of brand visual communication has been hijacked-by and is strongly associated with mid-to-lower end brands. Even luxury car maker Mercedes-Benz, who were early adopters of the three dimensional brand mark have recently changed back to a simpler, version of their mark to avoid the cues now associated with this trend.

With due respect to the many professionals who have worked on this campaign for Sofitel, the lack of brand designer in the mix is painfully clear. Given the care, detail and expense invested in the wonderful photo shoot for this campaign, it’s a pity the same consideration wasn’t afforded to establishing a brand visual language palette of equal quality and integrity.

Below are several other shots from the wonderful photo shoot by Tim Walker

Dave Ansett, Brandamentalist
Designer of Brand Visual Language
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  1. Luis F. Mejía

    Right you are in your observations.
    In the last 20 years, the democratization of creativity brought by technology has allowed anyone to become a “designer”.
    Non having satisfied their “creative soul” by stretching, distorting, compressing, massacring typography, now their creative cabalgata brings them to participate in the orgiastic frenzy buzz of Branding.

  2. Interesting post. Fun to read, and you are on the mark when it comes to disparate visual cues. Looks like a case of too many cooks in the kitchen to me. But I was curious about your praise of the photography, which seemed overblown and trying way, way too hard. The photo (all three actually) seems to be where the whole thing went wrong — the kitschy opposite of less-is-more elegance. Left me wondering about the targeting for the campaign. Is Sofitel shooting for the upper crust or the wanna-bees?

  3. Interesting analysis Dave, but what stuck me first was that here was a series of intricately constructed shots for landscape or double page spread use, crammed into a single page.

    In creating these images it seems they missed another ingredient – an experienced Art Director (for the agency, not the photographer) – who would have ensured that there were landscape and portrait versions produced to avoid just this problem. Having a talented photographer will only get you so far.

    Then, absolutely they’ve missed the final hurdle by not giving the layout the love it deserved. End result?
    Like having a Michelin starred chef create a meal, then the waiter serving to you in a take away carton. Messy.

  4. It could be better by, using the image on full bleed,
    delete the bottom “cursive type”, integrating the logo and tag line with the images (perhaps a composition) so they look as one/related.
    The tag line could be a hand written font.

    The shots are cool, for some reason, maybe is just me, the shot with all the pillows reminiscences sort of the 80’s? it still modern.

    thanks for sharing

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